What is Grief Counseling and How Does it Intersect with Applied Behavior Analysis?

Grief—a deep sense of loss—is something most of us will experience in our lifetime. While grief usually presents itself as intense sorrow, for some it can also involve shock, anger, guilt, regret, and a host of other emotions. What was lost, how it was lost, and our reactions to that loss can be dramatically different from one person to the next, making the process of working through grief an often difficult and painful endeavor.

Grief counseling can provide much needed support and guidance when we struggle to come to terms with a loss, are unable to apply positive coping methods to deal with the loss, have resorted to unhealthy behaviors as a result of the loss, or are simply overcome with deep sadness over the loss to the extent that it interferes with daily functioning.

While talk therapy is an important aspect of grief counseling, so is implementing short-term, actionable goals to replace negative thought patterns and behaviors with positive ones.

Greif counselors can even use the evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to identify negative behaviors that result from grief and encourage patients to introduce new behaviors that replace maladaptive ones. Through grief counseling, patients learn to develop the skills they need to cope with their loss.

What is a Grief Counselor?

A grief counselor is a mental health professional who is educated, trained, and licensed to provide mental health services that are focused on the grieving process.

Grief counselors may be:

  • Mental health counselors
  • Family and marriage therapists
  • Clinical social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Pastors/chaplains
  • Behavior analysts

These professionals may work in:

  • Hospitals
  • Hospices
  • Churches
  • Crisis centers
  • Counseling centers
  • Mental health clinics
  • Schools
  • Community/social services agencies
  • Telehealth (often available through telephone hotlines)

What Does a Grief Counselor Do? The Purpose and Role of the Grief Counselor

Grief counseling helps patients accomplish a number of goals, including accepting the loss, working through the pain of grief, and adjusting to life after a loss. Grief counseling is also about recovery from what many professionals term “complicated grief” – which is best defined as symptoms that persist over an extended period with little or no improvement.

In short, grief counseling is used to help people to come to terms with grief – whatever shape or form it takes. While grief itself is a natural feeling that results from the loss of a loved one, whether it’s due to death (often called bereavement), divorce, abandonment, a  fractured relationship, the loss of a loved one to drugs or alcohol, or even the impending death of a loved one, complicated grief is marked by one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Trouble completing daily tasks
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping problems (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Irritability or anger
  • Lack of self-care
  • Unrelenting physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches
  • Panic attacks
  • Feelings of hopelessness or abandonment
  • Adopting unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, drugs to deal with sadness
  • Delusions involving thoughts, visions, or voices
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Intrusive, obsessive thoughts
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Strong feelings of shame, guilt, despair, or fear

The grief counseling process typically includes four components:

  • Educating patients about the normal grieving process and the thoughts and emotions that accompany it
  • Encouraging patients to express their feelings
  • Helping patients build new relationships
  • Helping patients navigate their life after loss

For example, a woman who lost her husband (and her identity as a wife) may be encouraged to strengthen her identity as a mother, sister, and friend. Using ABA principles, the grief counselor would suggest new ways build relationships and incorporate positive behaviors into her life by meeting with friends once a week for lunch and volunteering at her local library. In many cases, these new behaviors would replace negative behaviors such as secluding herself and avoiding social time with friends.

Grief counseling is often part of the continuum of care, with grief counseling services often provided alongside other types of medical and therapeutic interventions. It may be offered in a private (individual) setting or in a group setting. Grief counseling provided in group settings has the advantage of support from others experiencing the same thing. For example, support groups exist for bereavement, the loss of a child, or divorce. Grief counseling can also be provided to families as a whole.

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How to Become a Grief Counselor: Degree and Licensure Requirements

The education, certification, and licensing requirements vary among these professionals:

  • Social workers may be educated and licensed at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, though a master’s in social work (MSW) is the standard minimum degree requirement in all states for those who perform clinical diagnosis and counseling work on an independent basis. You can find more information on state licensing requirements for social workers here.
  • Mental health counselors, family counselors, and marriage and family therapists may be educated and licensed at different education levels in most states. Non-supervised, full-authority, independent clinical work that involves diagnosing patients and developing treatment plans always involves a master’s or higher degree and state licensure in the specific role. You can find more information on state licensing requirements for counselors here.
  • Behavior analysts are master’s or doctoral educated professionals who are often nationally certified and are licensed in 30 states. You can learn more about the licensing requirements to become a behavior analyst here.
  • Psychiatrists are board-certified medical doctors who are educated and licensed to practice at the doctoral level in all states. You can learn more about state-specific requirements for becoming a psychiatrist here.
  • Psychologists are educated and trained at the doctoral level and are licensed to practice in all states. You can find more information on state licensing requirements for psychologists here.

Specialty Certification

Earning specialty certification is an excellent way to position yourself as a leader and change agent in your field:

The American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC) offers certification and fellowship programs in grief counseling. To earn the Certification in Grief Counseling, candidates must complete a four-course program that can be completed entirely online. To earn the Fellowship in Grief Counseling, candidates must complete a seven-course program that also availably entirely online. Both certifications are open to all qualified professionals in grief counseling, including physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, clergy, and funeral directors.

Other specialty certifications available to grief counselors include:

More About ABA Certification

While BCBA certification among behavior analysts is commonplace, practitioners in a wide array of human services field can benefit from achieving this designation. For example, adding certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to your credentials will allow you to achieve a foundation of knowledge in applied behavior analysis and serve as an ABA expert in grief counseling.

To currently qualify for this designation, candidates must hold a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis and a defined supervised practical experience.

Candidates who have completed a master’s degree in one of these areas may also qualify for BCBA certification by completing a verified course sequence (VCS) as either a stand-alone course sequence or as a post-graduate certificate. A number of schools offer the VCS, which can often be completed entirely online.

However, even grief counseling professionals like mental health counselors and social workers who earned a master’s degree in an area other than psychology, behavior analysis, or education may still be able to complete the VCS because in 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up BCBA certification to a wide variety of master’s-level practitioners in the human services field.

In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS have already removed the degree restrictions, allowing counselors, social workers, and other professionals to complete this comprehensive course of study in ABA now. And then, in 2022, you’ll have the option of completing the required experiential and exam requirements necessary to earn the BCBA designation.

Grief Counselor Salaries

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides a number of salary overviews for professionals practicing grief counseling. The following statistics provide average salaries for a number of mental health practitioners at the 25th, 50th, 75th and 90th percentiles:

  • Healthcare social workers: $47,630, $60,840, $76,920, $86,820
  • Social workers, all others: $46,340, $61,190, $80,040, $93,540
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $38,520, $48,520, $61,660, $77,980
  • Counselors, all others: $37,060, $45,160, $58,090, $76,780
  • Therapists, all others: $46,980, $59,500, $77,830, $98,490
  • Marriage and family therapists: $42,910, $49,880, $75,410, $96,520
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Healthcare Social Workers Social Workers, All Other; Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors; Counselors, all others; Therapists, All Other; and Marriage and Family Therapists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.